You are wrong about Lamar Jackson.
You think he’s not a capable NFL quarterback.
You think he doesn’t “look the part” because, at 6’2” and a wiry 212 pounds, he’s not a traditional drop back quarterback.
He’s not 6’6”, 245 pounds, stand in the pocket and chuck the ball short, deep and anywhere in between, you’re right.
If that description sounds like Joe Flacco, you’re right. And Lamar Jackson is no Joe Flacco.
He’s better than Joe Flacco.
But you’re not focusing on what Lamar Jackson is, or might become.
When you think about Lamar Jackson, you’re thinking about what he was last year.
You remember the ducks. You remember the ugly passes. You remember the guy who sometimes didn’t read defenses perfectly. That’s what comes to the front of your mind.
You are wrong about Lamar Jackson.
You don’t realize what he did last year.
There have been only eleven quarterbacks in NFL history to attempt at least 150 passes when they were 21-years old or younger.
Lamar Jackson was one of eleven.
Where did he rank in passer rating?
Number one of eleven.
He also ranked number two in adjusted yards per attempt and number two in completion rate.
The list includes Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Drew Bledsoe, among others.
Most of those other guys on the list are prototypes. Most are in the 6’4”, 225 lb range or bigger. Most are pocket quarterbacks with big arms who throw the ball with touch and accuracy. Most were No. 1 overall draft picks. After all, those are the guys who get to start at such a young age. The guys who were groomed to pass downfield.
You would think those quarterbacks could outperform Lamar Jackson as a passer.
You are wrong about Lamar Jackson.
And those well-groomed passers did not outperform Jackson – not even Jackson just as a passer.
As a passer, how did Lamar Jackson compare to his predecessor, Joe Flacco?
Jackson’s yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and passer rating his rookie year as a 21-year old, were all higher than Joe Flacco’s last year, as a 33-year old vet. And Flacco’s 32-year old season. And Flacco’s 31-year old season. And Flacco’s 30-year old season. You get the idea?
What about a younger Joe Flacco?
As a passer, the 21-year old rookie Jackson out-performed the 23-year old rookie Joe Flacco.
So, Jackson produced the best passing stats of any 21-year old rookie. And Jackson was better than Joe Flacco as a rookie or as a modern-day vet. But you’re not convinced. A sleight of hand with the stats, perhaps?
Let’s broaden the sample.
Of 45 first-round quarterbacks drafted since Peyton Manning with at least 150 attempts their rookie season, Lamar Jackson posted a HIGHER YPA and a BETTER PASSER RATING in his rookie season than these QBs drafted above him over the last several years:
- Andrew Luck (1st overall)
- Jared Goff (1st overall)
- Sam Bradford (1st overall)
- Carson Palmer (1st overall)
- Peyton Manning (1st overall)
- Carson Wentz (2nd overall)
- Mitchell Trubisky (2nd overall)
- Sam Darnold (3rd overall)
Just to name a few.
Of the 45, Lamar Jackson ranked in the top-10 in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating, and posted the second-lowest interception rate.
You’re having trouble digesting this information.
Your eyes saw something last year that your brain processed as subpar quarterback play.
And your ears listened to announcers talk negatively about Jackson’s ability to pass the football.
“You’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.” (The Prestige)
The secret you that you don’t want to know, because you would rather be fooled?
You are wrong about Lamar Jackson.
And once you learn the context of Lamar Jackson’s rookie season, you’ll be even more surprised.
The media questioned if he’d be a wide receiver in the NFL. Multiple teams requested him to work out as a wide receiver.
The Ravens drafted him, but he wasn’t supposed to play quarterback his rookie year.
So, he didn’t get first-team reps at camp, unlike most of the prototypical first-round quarterbacks who were written in pen as starters.
He played with the second-team his rookie camp. He watched from the sideline the first half of the season, getting inserted for a few gadget plays here and there.
Suddenly, entering their Week 10 bye, the team inserted Lamar Jackson as the starting quarterback.
That offense he watched Joe Flacco execute all of training camp and during the first nine weeks of the season?
Scrapped. “Forget about it, kid. You’re running a new offense.”
Think how hard that must have been on Jackson. No first-team reps, no ability to mentally prepare by envisioning him standing behind center instead of Joe Flacco, no ability to study film after games to learn the reads for the same offense he would soon be running.
And yet Lamar Jackson produced one of the best passing seasons a first-round rookie has delivered in the passing era. And the best for any 21-year old.
I’m highlighting Jackson as a passer, because that’s where you are wrong about him.
Jackson as a runner?
You’re 100% right.
He’s electric. He’s dynamic. He’s incredible.
No rookie quarterback ever had more than the 147 rushing attempts Lamar Jackson recorded, and he did so in only seven games as a starter.
He had to learn how the Ravens wanted him to run and still learn how the Ravens wanted him to pass. And he had to do so on the fly, because this offense wasn’t installed in training camp.
Jackson is a blazing fast runner, who excels at avoiding contact, and is a tremendous wild card.
Running quarterbacks are highly valuable in the NFL, because of the yards they add that other teams with drop back quarterbacks can’t replicate.
And Jackson can get you those yards.
But you already knew that much.
Now that you learned something about Lamar Jackson as a passer, and you can pair it with Lamar Jackson as a runner, where does that leave us entering 2019?
Baltimore morphed mid-season from the NFL’s pass-heaviest team to its run heaviest, chopping its league-high 66% pass rate in one-score games to a league-low 37%. And they were great running the ball, leading the league in yards per carry (5.4) and finishing No. 6 in rushing Success Rate from Week 11 on.
It was impressive to see how smoothly John Harbaugh and Jackson were able to execute the transition from pass-heavy to run-heavy.
This year, they can be whatever they want to be.
They won’t be what you’re watching in the preseason. They’re not dumb. They won’t unveil their new offense if the games don’t matter.
Promoted from assistant head coach/tight ends this offseason, new Ravens OC Greg Roman coordinated the 49ers’ offense in Colin Kaepernick’s 2012-2013 prime. After Roman left the Niners in 2015, Kaepernick’s yards per attempt fell from 7.5 to 6.7, his passer rating from 91 to 85, and his record from 25-14 to 3-16. Roman also coordinated the Bills’ offense in Tyrod Taylor’s career-best 2015 year.
Last year’s Ravens went 10-6 but were minus-3 in turnover margin and plus-3 in return touchdowns. Only three other teams since 2013 have won double-digit games with a minus-3 turnover margin or worse. The 2018 Ravens only went 3-4 in one-score games while experiencing terrible fumble luck, all positive signs in mean-regression terms.
The style in which the Ravens’ 2018 season ended may prove a best-case scenario for this year’s club. In the Wild Card Round, the Chargers held Baltimore to a 29% Success Rate and only 3.6 yards per carry on runs through three quarters while taking a commanding 12-3 fourth-quarter lead. The Ravens leaned on Jackson for a season-high 29 pass attempts against the NFL’s No. 10 pass defense. In a fourth-quarter flurry, Jackson averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with a 117 rating while significantly increasing his depth of target downfield.
The Ravens should know teams have studied their offense intently this offseason, and seeing the Chargers stop their rushing attack may give Baltimore a blueprint for how opponents will defend them in 2019. And Jackson’s fourth-quarter passing success against Los Angeles should increase the Ravens’ confidence in his ability to throw the ball efficiently.
It helps that Baltimore’s 2019 schedule is favorable. They’re a run-first team facing the NFL’s second-softest schedule of run defenses, which last year combined to allow the league’s highest explosive run rate. The Ravens’ pass-defense schedule does toughen considerably from last year, but Jackson will finally get a full offseason of first-team reps and preparation.
The Ravens open 2019 facing the NFL’s two likeliest candidates for 2020’s No. 1 overall pick in the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals.
They next face the Chiefs, a team Jackson nearly knocked off in Kansas City last season. Baltimore doesn’t play the Steelers in primetime this year.
They have a midseason bye, and get to face the Patriots after that off week.
They host a late-season Thursday Night Football game, results of which have skewed heavily in favor of home teams.
They don’t have any back-to-back road stands.
And they play six games against quarterbacks with just one year of experience as full-time starters. They get Kyler Murray in the second start of his career. The Ravens are 8-4 over the last three seasons when facing quarterbacks in their first or second season.
Best of all, the Ravens are running an offense that is completely different from anything in the NFL. They are zigging while the league zags.
When it comes to causing trouble for opposing defenses, I always say, “do something different and do it well.” The Patriots (high rates of 21 personnel), the Rams (high rates of 11 personnel) and the Chiefs (high rates of 12 personnel) all were incredible last year by adhering to this strategy.
The Ravens will force your defense to adjust in the span of a few days of practice to attempt to stop their unique offense.
A unique offense which received a special visit this offseason from a coach that isn’t being talked about enough. Paul Johnson, the former Navy and Georgia Tech head coach, whose triple option offense was extremely tough for opponents to prepare for, came to Ravens camp this summer and watched film and practice with the Ravens coaches.
The Ravens are doing what we know works. They are adapting their offense to fit the skill set of their players.
More teams should be doing just that.
When teams do that with drop back quarterbacks, tailoring plays to optimize their arm, you praise them.
When the Ravens do it with a running quarterback like Lamar Jackson, you criticize them.
Lamar Jackson isn’t a perfect passer. He’ll be the first to tell you he threw “a lotta ducks” last year. He’s extremely self-aware.
Lamar Jackson probably won’t wow you with his accuracy, and there probably will still be a few ducks this year.
But you thought Lamar Jackson wasn’t a good passer last year.
And you were wrong.
With a full offseason of camp with the first-team offense, playing in an offense that is being built to emphasize his strengths, guess what?
If you doubt him, you’ll probably be wrong about Lamar Jackson in 2019, too.
He’ll be just as dynamic a runner as you remembered him being last year.
But he’s going to be a far better passer than what you were tricked into thinking he was last year.